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  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
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Photo by Jenny Matthews / panos

A metal statue of a pair of giant sandals towers over a major thoroughfare in downtown Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. The sandals represent the decades-long struggle for independence. These rubber sandals, made from old tyres, were the main footwear of the Eritrean fighters. The statue makes a refreshing change from the usual hawk-faced national hero.

Eritreans themselves symbolize the tenacity of a small people determined to make their own way in the world – but have unfortunately also become an example of how tenacious nationalism can turn from hope to despotism in the wink of an eye.

Flag of Eritrea

The country, once one of Italy’s few colonial possessions, covers an 800-kilometre strip along Africa’s Red Sea coast, stretching from Sudan in the north to Djibouti in the south. Eritrea’s land varies from the relatively cool highlands where the Italianate capital Asmara is perched (one of Africa’s urban jewels) to one of the driest and hottest places on earth – the Danakil or Afar Depression, the lowest point in all of Africa, where temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees celsius. The country is, by and large, a dry rocky land that demands much from the people who try to wring a living from it. More than half of the population lives on less than $1 per day, and about a third subsists on fewer than 2,000 calories per day.

The recent history of the Eritrean people has added its own series of challenges to those of the topography. In the early days of World War Two, the British expelled the Italians from Eritrea and controlled the country until 1951, when it was federated to its landlocked southern neighbour Ethiopia, despite the objections of a growing Eritrean national movement. Nationalist agitation continued to grow, however, and a war of liberation was launched against first feudal despot (come Rasta hero) Haile Selassie and then the ruthless Stalinist military regime headed by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. In 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), along with allies from inside Ethiopia, finally triumphed. This was followed by an April 1993 referendum in which Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence.

It was never going to be easy. This small country of just five million people is divided along many lines – between Christians and Muslims, between different ethnic groups, between highlanders and lowlanders, between the settled and the nomadic. It is sandwiched between a hostile Ethiopia and a Sudan in the thrall of Islamic fundamentalism. The economy, as in much of Africa, is based on smallholder rain-fed agriculture prone to drought, with few other natural resources.

The fragile economic situation has been made far worse by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (the new face of the EPLF) Government of Isaias Afwerki which has, in the eyes of many Eritreans, betrayed the promise of the hard-fought liberation struggle. It has repressed all internal dissent, refused to implement the 1999 constitution, and postponed national elections for over a decade.

In regional politics the Afwerki Government has been in a state of continual tension with Ethiopia that erupted into armed conflict in 1998 over a couple of hundred metres of rocky territory. Almost 80,000 people were killed and Eritrean profit from Ethiopia’s use of its Red Sea ports came to an abrupt halt.

The main resource of Eritrea has always been the resilience of its people. Even under the martial conditions imposed by the Afwerki regime they have achieved much: revitalizing the spectacular Italian-built railroad that drops from Asmara to the Red Sea port of Massawa, and building a Red Sea highway from there to Asseb in the south.

After years of hard independence struggle, the Eritrean people are again faced with the uphill task of regaining their self-rule – this time from internal rather than foreign despots.

Richard Swift

Map of Eritrea

Fact file

Leader Isaias Afwerki
Economy GNI per capita $230 (Sudan $960, Italy $33,540).
Monetary unit Nafka
Main exports livestock, sorghum, textiles, food, small manufactures. Eritrea values self-reliance but imports (also worker remittances and aid receipts) by far outstrip exports. Based on the per-litre pump price, Eritrea has the most expensive fuel in the world. Despite commitments to market reform and attracting foreign investment, the economy remains mostly centrally planned. Gross national income had a dramatic setback because of the war with Ethiopia and remains low even by African standards.
People 5.3 million (2008 census). Annual population growth rate 2.5%. People per square kilometre 45 (UK 250).
Health Infant mortality 46 per 1,000 live births (Sudan 69, Italy 3). HIV prevalence rate 1.3%. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 44 (Ireland 1 in 47,600). With just 4 doctors for every 100,000 people, the health system remains rudimentary.
Environment CO2 emissions per capita 0.2 tonnes (US 20.6). Eritrea suffers from deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, overgrazing, famine and damage due to warfare. The Government is the first in the world to declare its entire coastline plus offshore islands an environmentally protected zone.
Culture A variety of ethnic cultures and customs coexist in the context of a traditional Tigrinya lifestyle, modified by the continued influence of Italian colonialism as seen in the cuisine and café society of Asmara and other urban centres.
Religion 50% Sunni Muslim, 50% Christian (mostly Eritrean Orthodox but also Catholic and various Protestant groups).
Language There is no official language but Tigrinya and Arabic are the most used. English and Italian are widely understood.
Human Development Index: 1995 0.435; 2006 0.442 (Sudan 0.526, Italy 0.945).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Land reform has levelled income in rural areas, though most are still very poor. Gradual emergence of an urban élite mostly associated with the state.
Literacy 59% – a dramatic improvement on levels in 1994, particularly among women and nomads.
Life expectancy 58 years (Sudan 58, Italy 81). Improved from just 47 years since our last profile.
Freedom Widespread repression of dissent, particularly in the press. Reporters Without Borders classifies Eritrea below even North Korea as the worst violator of press freedom in the world. Many journalists and others have been put in the notorious Diabeto Prison north of Asmara. Allegations of torture and extra-judicial execution.
Position of women Formal equality but traditional prejudices prevail, particularly in rural areas where female genital mutilation/cutting is still practised. Gains in education and family law do not apply in sharia cases.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is illegal with punishments of three to ten years in prison.
Previously reviewed 1994
New Internationalist assessment While Eritrea clings fiercely to its goals of independence and self-reliance, nationalism is being used for a number of anti-democratic purposes. Since 2001 the Government has arrested hundreds of people, many of whom have not been heard from since, including ex-ministers, political activists, religious dissenters, journalists and anyone suspected of disloyalty. Eritrea under Afwerki is following the well-worn path of a revolution that eats its own children.

New Internationalist issue 428 magazine cover This article is from the December 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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